Sometime in the 12th century, Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet and astronomer, wrote these lines about love and longing: “Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring / The winter garment of repentance fling: The bird of time has but a little way / To fly — and Lo! the bird is on the wing.”
Khayyam could never have imagined that his words would be depicted, nearly a millennium later, in a far-off place called Kashmir, on four-foot-high, intricately designed, papier-mâché vases. His poems continue to inspire the masters of papier-mâché art, who live in the narrow bylanes of Srinagar’s Zadibal-Alamgari Bazaar. They have, for centuries, striven to bring to life the literary works of poets, Iranian kings and Mughal emperors, adding their familiar, local motifs to the mix.
“I am not a learned man. But I know that Khayyam was a highly imaginative person who delved deep into his mind’s images. We offer a peek into Khayyam’s mind through our work,” says Reyaz Ahmad Khan, 51, a Shia Muslim from Alamgari Bazaar, as he swirls a vase with its images, like a storyteller captivating a group of children on a wintry Kashmiri evening.
Khan’s elder brother is an award-winning artisan. He was in Class IV when his parents enrolled him with a master artisan at a local karkhana (studio). Later, Khan and many other siblings joined their brother. Today, hundreds of artisans — men and women — learn the craft at similar karkhanas , many, like Khan’s brother, beginning at a tender age.
“It all started with putting dots on the works crafted by my brother. And now, after all these years, I can make the brush sing,” says Khan.
Each of Khan’s vases is indeed a story. The Khayyam verses depicted on them tell tales of human life: a man courts a nymph; the couple enters the garden of love; they age together in these gardens that resemble Kashmir with chinars and flowers embossed all over.
We meet Khan at his two-storey showroom-cum-design centre. He is wearing a black pheran and the embers in his kangri with its knitted willow cover are fast turning to ash. But the ink-pot and brush dripping with parrot-green paint are all that he is focused on.
For Khan, his wife, their extended family and two young neighbours, winter is the season for papier-mâché. The cold, they say, forces them to stay indoors and offers less distraction than the summers filled with tasks.
“Papier-mâché gives us a sense of peace. The way prayers purify a person, this art purifies us,” says Khan, who begins his day at eight in the morning and works till 10 at night. “There is no fixed schedule,” he says. “But I love to work after sundown; the long winter nights feel shorter.”
Khan and his associates are busy with a special commission. They are restoring the freehand papier-mâché work on the ceiling of an imambara in Zadibal, a special prayer hall mostly used by Shia Muslims at Muharram. “These are pieces more than 200 years old. We are trying to recreate the ceiling. Future generations should be able to appreciate this work centuries down the line,” says Khan.
The first artisan
No historian has been able to trace the first papier-mâché artisan who travelled to Kashmir from Persia, where the craft was born, probably at the same time that kar-i-kalamdan, the art of making lacquered pen cases, became popular. Local legend has it that the art was introduced to Kashmir in the 15th century by a Kashmiri prince who had spent years in prison in Samarkand in Central Asia.
Experts, however, believe the Sultanate period in Kashmir in the 14th century was when a large number of migrants, especially those from Persia and Central Asia, travelled to Kashmir and introduced many arts and crafts.
Hakim Sameer Hamdani, architect and author of the book The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir (Early 14th –18th Century) , says two men stand out for their contribution: Mir Syed Ali Hamadani, a famous Persian mystic, and Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen, a local king. “The Syed came to Kashmir in the 14th century,” says Hamdani, “when Timur invaded Persia. He brought several artisans with him. The then king, Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen, encouraged and patronised their work.”
In the 15th century, shields, bows, arrows and quivers were made from papier-mâché. In the 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh decorated the ceiling of his summer house in Lahore’s Hazuri Bagh with exquisite papier-mâché, an attraction even today.
The art of papier-mâché has been passed on orally from one generation to the next. Indeed, until the 20th century, the craft was a well-kept secret within the artisan community, says Hamdani. Many processes and materials — such as the use of smoke as ink, crushed limestones as base, and fish fat as colour — are no longer in vogue. However, papier-mâché continues to be crafted by hand, with brush strokes that render flawless patterns. Sareesh , the locally made glue derived from animal or fish fat, is used in almost all stages of the work.
It’s an age-old process. Paper is first soaked in water for several days, then drained and mixed with cloth, rice straw and copper sulphate to form a pulp. The mixture is placed on a mould and left to dry for two-three days in a process called sakhtsazi . The surface is coated with glue and gypsum, rubbed smooth with a stone or piece of baked clay, and plastered with many layers of tissue paper. The piece is then sandpapered or burnished and finally painted with several coats of lacquer, a process known as naqashi or surface painting.
From portraits of the Mughal emperors, especially Jahangir, for whom Kashmir became a favourite haunt, to the last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar; from court scenes to hunting parties, the craft chronicled history, freezing time in frames with the finest details. But it is the depictions of Kashmir’s flora and fauna that are the big draw for buyers across the globe.
The award-winning Masrat Jan, bespectacled and in her 50s, is one of the few women associated with the trade. Her home in Mughal Mohalla in Srinagar’s Lal Bazaar is her karkhana , with most of her family also involved in the craft. Masrat’s favourite motifs are drawn from Kashmir’s famous spring, with its peach, almond and cherry trees in full bloom and its many birds. “Depicting spring gives me a sense of elation,” says Masrat. “I love to paint fruit trees like the apple, almond and peach, wild bushes, roses, birds. They dispel the sadness of the saddest hearts.” Most Kashmiri papier-mâché boxes that adorn homes across the globe are a riot of floral motifs: roses, irises, carnations, poppies, lotuses, narcissus, daffodils, as well as grape vines and chinar leaves.
Masrat’s husband Maqbool Jan, 60, four-time State award winner, is known for his innovative patterns. He was just four when he joined a karkhana, soon after his father’s death. He turned the pain into unmatched craft. “The more symmetrical the flowers and birds are, the more money it fetches,” says Maqbool, as he cleans up a small box that can sell for ₹50,000.
The boxes he makes with the Dal Lake and Jamia Masjid motifs have fetched him awards but, he says, there is no dignity in being an artisan in Kashmir. “Do you see any political party offering special measures for us in their manifestos? We continue to live in pain. Who asks us if we have money for school fees or food? No one.”
He sees a lot of scope for the art. When he designed papier-mâché on the walls of the now-famous Srinagari tea joint Chai Jai, Maqbool saw it as the beginning of a new trend. “I was expecting people to go in for papier-mâché work on their walls, in their children’s bedrooms,” he says. The work on Chai Jai took two years to complete. Since it is located on the banks of the Jhelum, Maqbool created floral prints to match the location. “I wanted people to feel they are in a garden when they sit in the café,” he says.
Instead, papier-mâché is now at its lowest ebb. Three decades of militancy have taken a huge toll, say artisans. Then came the unprecedented floods of 2014, inundating scores of karkhanas on the banks of Khushal Sar lake and in Hasanabad. Finally, this year’s pandemic dried up all offshore orders, especially from Europe, their mainstay.
The French, Hamdani says, were the first Western buyers of papier-mâché in the 19th century; they packed pashmina shawls in papier-mâché boxes. “Only tourism can sustain our art. Without that, the craft is doomed. And in the last three decades, tourism has been badly hit,” says Maqbool. Today, he is innovating. Crafting functional products like bridal purses, pen-holders, stands for mobile phones and visiting cards, to keep trade afloat.
Ray of hope
Meanwhile, a ₹2.18 crore World Bank scheme, created after the floods, offers a ray of hope. The artisans are attending workshops with trade experts from across the country to upgrade designs and colours. Both Maqbool and Khan attended the workshops in Srinagar, along with some 600 artisans who have been through the skill assessment and capacity building classes.
“The workshop would have been more fruitful if the remuneration was better. I had to give up a day’s work for it,” says Maqbool, “but there were some fruitful interventions like new colour schemes and designs.” For centuries, the colours have been limited to four or five pastel shades, locally called sufiyana rang or colours influenced by Sufi sensibilities, believed to have been an influence on the craft.
“We are aiming to establish sustainable artisan-owned institutions,” says Syed Abid Rasheed Shah, CEO of the Economic Reconstruction Agency, the implementing agency of the scheme. “Marketing linkages, orders, and participation in marketing events will be facilitated by experts.”
The artisans have pinned a lot of hope on the World Bank project and on a post-pandemic world returning to Kashmir and the Dal Lake, pashmina and papier-mâché. For now, I leave Khan engrossed, head bent close over his creation, his brush dripping bright green.